The blackness of Holly Melgard's 'Black Friday'

One of the questions I want to ask given the failure of some recent so-called Conceptual poetry is, what are metaphors for the production and experience of black life that do not primarily reproduce the trauma of antiblack racism? What metaphors, although historically part of the maintenance of white supremacy, can be repurposed in the service of sustaining black life? And how?

At the close of his introduction to Home: Social Essays, Amiri Baraka suggests one such metaphor when he writes, “By the time this book appears, I will be even blacker.”[1] Zora Neale Hurston explores a similar idea regarding the relationship between black identity, representation, and text when she writes, “I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background.”[2] Though Baraka’s link between the book and blackness is more indirect than Hurston’s, both imagine being, or express a feeling of being, more black within their context, where the context is, most immediately, writing or publication, which is to say, appearing somehow in print. Both writers, among other writers and artists, consider the problem of being represented as black ink in the midst of the whiteness of the pages of their books. This metaphor, that black ink refers to black skin and that white paper refers to white skin, is not the responsibility alone of black writers and artists to articulate and intervene in.

Holly Melgard’s Black Friday, a 740-page book of almost entirely black ink (if it is to be printed), extends from both the intimacy and the gap between writing and racialization (as black) that Hurston, Baraka, and others describe. By contextualizing Melgard’s piece in this intimacy and gap, by wondering about the blackness in Black Friday, I hope to read in a way that contributes to what Fred Moten and Stefano Harney think of as black study, the study of black life, which is life.

Melgard wanted to know the maximal difference between a digital book and a printed one. The way she sought out this difference was by testing what would refuse to print. Would they print an all-black book? Was there a kind of book that could exist only digitally? Wouldn’t Lulu be sabotaging themselves if they somehow missed her scam? Seven hundred and forty pages of black ink would cost more to print than a book with white space between words on a page. But Melgard found an unpredictable limit. While she might have hoped to break the printers, she succeeded in making a book that can only sometimes appear in print.  

The book that can only sometimes appear in print offers another take on the already unstable metaphor regarding print and page, black and white. Although the title and concept of Black Friday refer most explicitly to the circulation of material wealth and the constructions of class identity through big-sale shopping on the day after Thanksgiving, Black Friday also refers us to the simultaneous void and materiality of the body, and the importance of not controlling the appearance of a black body in particular. Melgard’s poem produces the grounds for a fantasy about minimizing whiteness. The only part of the body of the book that’s white is its tiny page numbers. The context of this work exceeds its own conceptualization, which helps it work in more ways than it set out to. Also, thinking through blackness here suggests potentially shared desires for poetry which might go unnoticed otherwise.

I read Black Friday as indebted to the Black Arts Movement, which delivers one of the most significant calls for poems to exceed themselves by becoming material, so that they, in Baraka’s words, “shoot / guns.” Melgardprovides a small assist to Baraka here. Black Friday is a poem that might destroy the means of its own production. These similar but different dreams of materialization and dematerialization speak to the impotence of poetry alone to effect political change, yet the dream for poetry to be other than itself does not abate. For Baraka, writing leads to intensifying his own racial identity and visibility, which also increases his vulnerability, and, at the same time, it gives him more power, or at least the potential to be involved in a physical response to violence. For Melgard, the distance travelled between the printed and digital book keeps fantasies about minimizing whiteness and becoming blacker in motion, stretching toward the power to effect the physical and political context that renders the work more meaningful than it can say.

In Troubling Vision: Performance, Visuality, and Blackness, Nicole Fleetwood writes, “Blackness fills in space between matter, between object and subject, between bodies, between looking and being looked upon. It fills in the void and is the void. Through its circulation, blackness attaches to bodies and narratives coded as such but it always exceeds these attachments.”[3] Baraka’s work and Melgard’s project ask about this circulation in particular. They walk us up to or throw us into the gap this circulation circumscribes, the place where an indelible distinction between black and white succeeds but at the same time fails because whiteness relies so heavily on blackness to be itself.

These authors suggest that “becoming blacker” is to succeed at marking an important distinction between metaphor and materiality and, at the same time, it is to suffer in the gap, the failure to maintain this distinction, given the bulk and, ultimately, exhaustion of the work of maintaining it. There is no possibility for poems to shift their own contexts if there is not the possibility of participating in an intensification of blackness.

Poetic form itself cannot contain the violence of antiblack racism. This is to say, my concept for writing and the form my concept takes should not be expected to hold and protect me from growing public awareness, anger, and grief about the incalculable vulnerability black life suffers. Something more, much more than the concept of writing itself is needed, or something less. Much less, much less white is needed.

1. LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka), Home: Social Essays (New York: William Morrow, 1966), 10.

2. Zora Neale Hurston, “How It Feels to Be Colored Me,” originally published in The World Tomorrow (1928).

3. Nicole R. Fleetwood, Troubling Vision: Performance, Visuality, and Blackness (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011), 6.